Can Old Testament people miss out on heaven because they don't know Jesus? Christians understand there is only one way for salvation and entrance into heaven and that is through Jesus Christ. Acts 4:12, clearly states
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
It refers to Jesus as the only way to salvation. Again, 1 Timothy 2:5-6 tells us that only Jesus Christ can mediate between God and humans.
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
However, we might find ourselves wondering about the salvation of people that lived during the Old Testament times and could not know Jesus as their savior. After all it is not a person’s fault if they could not hear of Jesus simply because they lived prior to his coming to earth and preaching the gospel message? This seems unfair and troubles us. Although we know God is just, we do not understand how God could leave these people out of heaven simply because of the unfortunate time when they lived.
The best way to address these kinds of concern is to go to the beginning and work our way forward to learn what the Bible actually says and how God’s plan for the people’s salvation worked. The first period to address is from the actuation of sin through Adam and Eve to the establishment of the Law of Moses in Exodus 29. We must consider the sin of Adam and Eve. This “original sin” did something to all of humankind. Every single person that has ever lived has sinned as a result of Adam and Eve’s original sin. All sin is sinned against God and requires a remedy of forgiveness to God’s satisfaction. Our sin blocks our way to heaven and God’s remedy unblocks it. Because we all have sinned heaven is no longer the default option for us. We must take action to deal with our sins that separate us from God before heaven can be our destiny.
Chronologically, Enoch is the first person of interest in this period. His experience says a lot about the access people could have with God during this time. Adam was still alive during much of Enoch’s lifetime. Enoch may have heard the stories of Adam and Eve walking with God in the garden Eden in the cool of the day the story that explains why it is not that way anymore, the story of the fall and original sin.
We know he chose a godly life because Genesis 5:24 says, “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” This short comment is all the Bible says about what happened and is taken as a clear “reference to his being taken to heaven without dying.” Enoch went to heaven without knowing Jesus, but he knew God. This shows us it was possible at that time to have access to God and go to heaven under God’s plan for that time.
Next is Noah. Now “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. … Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.” (Gen 6:8-9) God spared the lives of Noah and his family during the flood because Noah found favor in God’s eyes and believed God when he spoke of the flood and building an ark. Believing God like that is faith. The Hebrew word for (צַדִּיק) “righteous” means he was a just or upright man. The Hebrew word for (תָּמִים) “Blameless” is synonymous with Righteous and serves to emphasis how upright Noah was.
Noah is of interest because he was righteous and blameless by God’s reckoning. Noah walked with God as Enoch did. The people of the world were so sinful during Noah’s time that God decided to destroy them, saving only Noah and his family along with a ship full of animals to repopulate the earth.
Noah was not just “a little better” than the others or “slightly less” sinful than them. No, He had a clean slate, “righteous and blameless.” Everyone has sinned because after the Adam and Eve’s fall into sin it is human nature to sin, yet Noah’s slate is clean with no offences. How a person who has sinned can have a clean slate is discussed further below.
Abram, his name is later changed to Abraham, is another interesting case during this period. The Lord had spoken to Abram in Genesis 15:5–6.
And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
“Believed” in verse 6 should be understood as “put his trust”. God spoke to Abram who took it as fact. Abram had the faith to believe. The “He reckoned it to him as righteousness” in the above verse is expanded by Saint James in 2:21 by adding, “and he was called the friend of God” based on 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8. Abram’s faith was seen as righteousness in the eyes of God. Later God told Abram, “Walk before Me, and be blameless.” So Abram also walked with God having the knowledge that God was watching him.
Sacrifices had a role during this period. God had modeled the act of sacrificing for sins in Genesis 3:21 when he made clothes for Adam and Eve from an animal’s skin to cover them and their sin. Their sons Cain and Abel were aware of the need to sacrifice. Abel followed God’s model and sacrificed an animal while Cain improperly offered “the fruit of the ground.” Noah offered burnt offerings after the flood. Abraham offered burnt offering. Jacob offered a sacrifice. There is a pattern of offerings and sacrifices made to God.
God killed an animal to cover the sins of Adam and Eve. From this people of all parts of the world knew God’s expectation of sacrifices for their sins. They knew sacrifices did something to alleviate the burdens of sin. This necessarily was the case for Noah since he was righteous. He had dealt with his sins in a manner satisfactory to God Who deemed him “righteous.” It is unknown to what extent people understood the substitutional element involved with the animal that died in their place for the sins. Yet, making a sacrifice to God demonstrates faith in Him to reconcile their sinfulness. Hebrews 11:2-8 make clear to us that these men had faith.
2 For by it the men of old gained approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. 4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. 5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.
We see that all these men mentioned earlier had faith. Although the Old Testament did not explicitly state it, Able, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham (Abram) are all said to have faith in the above passage. They demonstrated faith in God and his forgiveness of their sinfulness when they made sacrifices to Him. This is how a person who has sinned could have a clean slate in God’s eyes as Noah did. We will discover later how important faith is in salvation during every period.
The second era is from the establishment of the Mosaic Law to the establishment of the New Covenant. To clear up the nomenclature for this section, “Law of Moses”, “Mosaic Law”, and “Law” all refer to the Law God gave to Moses beginning with the Ten Commandments and including all the laws and regulations given in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
Let us first consider our approach to the Law of Moses because as Christians we sometimes apply New Testament verses to the Old Testament when we should not. Other times we go by memory, even though we may not remember a verse as well as we think we do, and it causes us problems in understanding what we are studying.
We learn Christ is our high priest. He entered a better tabernacle and he shed better blood than the Old Testament priest did under the Law of Moses.  We also learn that stumbling at a single point of the law makes one guilty of the whole law. We understand the Law as a tutor, teaching us something about God and what He wants of us. This is true.
Often, we view the Law as inadequate for the forgiveness of sins. We think the Law could not atone for sin because no one could keep the whole Law. To us the Law, it seems, is simply given to point us toward Christ so we could understand all that Christ did for us. The Law helps us to recognize our sinfulness so we will ask Christ to forgive us of our sins. Our interpretation gets in our way. James 2:10 simply says that failure to keep one part of the Law broke the whole law, in other words guilty is guilty. It in no way indicated the impossibility of people being able to keep and live the Law.
Secondly, the verses used were all taken out of their context. Even if a person looked up the verses and checked the context of the text and it look like they are in context, they are used out of the context of the Old Testament person living under the Law before Christ died on the Cross and rose from the dead that we are applying the verses to. We cannot understand the era of the Mosaic Law through Christian lenses injecting New Testament ideas or by using a “Christian filter” to interpret the Old Testament. We must take pause from the New Testament and read the Old Testament carefully to understand what God told Israel the sacrifices of the Law would do for them.
The importance of understanding the context of these verse to understand how the author has used them and what they truly say about the Law cannot be emphasized enough. The most difficult part of this study has been keeping track of this context of the verses.
One must be very careful when using verses to explain the Law. Of course, scripture must be used to explain the law. Verses from the Torah are straight forward to use; however, verses from the prophets and the New Testament can seem like a maze of contradictions. This is because the context is often referring to people who are not godly and care nothing of the Law.
One must pay particular attention to whether the author is writing about those who serve God or those that do not. Some people go went through the motions of keeping the Law although they did not serve God in their hearts. Their sacrifices are not desired by God, neither do they accomplish any redemptive purpose. Yet these same actions are graced with redemptive purpose when done by pious people desiring to serve their Lord and seeking His forgiveness. The comments in verses relating to the Law differ according the hearts of the people in the context. Understanding this will simplify matters when interpreting the verses.
The laws for sin offerings begin in Leviticus 4:1 and continue to Leviticus 19:22. There are two more sacrifices for atonement given in Number 15 for when they entered the land of Canaan. A person with Bible software can find these verses by searching the books of the Law (NASB) for “forgiven AND atonement.” The context of each of the verses found with the search explains the situation requiring the sacrifice and then the verses say something like, “The priest shall then make atonement for him/them … and it will be forgive him/them. The laws for these sacrifices prescribed under the Law of Moses say when the priest makes atonement for them and their sins forgiven. This is what Moses told the people under the Law. It is what they believed. It is where they placed their faith in God. They understood that if they made the proper sacrifice, if one existed for their situation, they obtained forgiveness of their sin. However, there was no sacrifice for intentional sin.
The new testament discusses justification as part of salvation. Being justified is like going to court and getting a verdict of innocence. Legally, it is as though you never did the crime even if you did actually do it. Romans 3:19–20 indicates one is not justified through the Law.
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Verse 20 uses a figure of speech where the word “flesh” is used in place of “people.” No person will be justified in God’s sight through the works of the Law.
At first reading, this looks like the people living under the Law of Moses could not be saved because they could not be justified by the Law. If one understands the context of the verse, they realize Paul is talking about people who do not try to keep the Law and simply go through the motions or “the works” of the Law. There is more to the Law than making sacrifices. That will be develop further later.
Similarly, Galatians 2:15-16 also comes from a passage about some people that are not using the Law properly and therefore to no avail
15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
Those simply doing the works of the Law, went through the motions of the sacrifice to the Lord without sorrow, regret, or thoughts of their debt to God. They did not have the faith in God’s Law needed for forgiveness. They did it for show, acts before others. The Apostle Peter found himself influenced by the “party of circumcision” and Paul called him on it because circumcision is nothing to those saved through Christ.
One is tempted to read “doing the works of the Law” as living by the Law; however, living by the Law was much more than performing the works of the Law. Doing the works of the Law was simply going through the motions of keeping the letter of the Law without the spirit of the Law.
Living the Law was a way of life. They were conscious of God all the time. They actively avoided sinning and took measure to keep themselves from sinning. They understood animals could not be substituted and die for their sin if it were done intentionally. Sacrifices were only for unintentional sins once they realized they had sinned.
Those who lived by the Law understood the sacrifices took their punishment in their place and died in because of their sin. This role of substitution was signified by placing their hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal as it was sacrificed to recognize the transfer of the burden of sin from themselves to the dying animal.
Most importantly, and the greatest difference between doers of the Law and doers of the works of the Law is their faith. Just doing works of the Law does not require faith. Their reward is in appearing pious in front of everybody else. They received no forgiveness because of their lack of faith, it requires faith. “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith” On the other hand, doers of the Law had faith that God would punish the sinful person and faith that God would forgive the sins of a repentant person. They understood the burden of sin and the relieve of forgiveness. They did it God’s way. They took it seriously as one should take their relationship with God.
The religious leaders among the Jews were doing the works of the Law while ignoring the intent of the Law. Paul’s calling one of them a “whitewashed wall” points to this. Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” and later said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites.” Jesus recognized that something was wrong with the relationship these people had with God.
In the Old Testament many people strayed from the Law. Too often people worshiped idols. These people had no regard for the Lord or His Law. Any works of the Law they may have performed would have no value to them or provide any forgiveness of sins. Many of the Jews in the New Testament put little value in the Law beyond going through the motions of the works of the Law though there were some pious Jews. This accounts for Paul saying of these people, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight …” and “a man is not justified by the works of the Law” while to the pious he says, “… but the doers of the Law will be justified.”
The prophet Habakkuk lived under the Law and wrote the sole mention of faith of the righteous under the Law. Habakkuk 2:4, “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.” The first part of the verse speaks of those who do not live by the Law. The second part speaks to those who live the Law. They have faith that the sacrifices bring about forgiveness of sins and are therefore righteous in the sight of God. Compare Romans 2:13 “for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”
Now we move into the third period. Just as the way to forgiveness and heaven was very different during the Law of Moses than it was during the previous time periods, it is very different during this time that follows. We call God’s plan for people during the Law of Moses the Old Covenant and God’s plan for people today the New Covenant. The change in what it is called signifies there is a difference between the two plans to gain God’s forgiveness. There remain important similarities although in the two covenants although the New Covenant is quite different.
As before, a person must recognize their sin and their need to resolve the issue of their sin which separates them from God. Everyone has sinned. This separates us from God until we deal with our sin. We must deal with sin God’s way, not our own. God makes the rules, but God’s way is simple to. Our pride can get in the way and we resist God’s way. It requires a certain degree of surrendering to God to come to the point of willingness to accept God’s simple way.
Some people believe there is no need to do anything to go to heaven; however, the default place to go once we die is not heaven. We must do something to choose heaven. That thing is to deal with our sin God’s way.
I keep saying we need to deal with sin God’s way. That is because so many people would rather do it their way. They would rather help a thousand people with good deeds or pilgrimage great distances to some holy place in great discomfort to somehow please God. This is not God’s way for us to gain forgiveness of our sins. We cannot earn it because He has made forgiveness a gift to us. The thing is a gift can be either accepted or rejected. We must accept the Gift if we are to receive forgiveness of our sins.
Earlier, we covered the animal sacrifices made during the previous time periods. That was God’s way then because it was to redeem people from the punishment of death for their sin. This is still necessary, but now God has provided the sacrifice for us. It is a better sacrifice than an animal sacrifice. God sent His Son to live as a human Who lived without sinning; therefore, He was able to become the perfect sacrifice for our sins once for all. His sacrifice does not need repeating as the animal sacrifices had to be repeated but satisfies all our sin once for all if we accept God’s gift to us.
We also discussed the faith people had that their sacrifice would bring about forgiveness of their sins. It was noted that this was an important element in the process of making the sacrifices, but it would be discussed more later and it was discussed more. There is still more to discuss because faith is an important part of the New Covenant also.
At first, God modeled the sacrifices in the Garden of Eden. Later He specified the Law of Moses resulted in the forgiveness of sin through sacrifices. Now Christ has already died for our sins, He is the sacrifice for sin. No other sacrifice is acceptable to God anymore because He sent His Son. Will a person believe God will forgive them of their sin through His Son Jesus Christ? Will they have faith? Many people stumble at this point.
I often say, “Our life on earth is a testing ground to decide what we will do with Jesus.” Will we acknowledge our need to deal with our sin and accept the gift of God, His crucified Son for our sins? Will we have faith that God will forgive us of our sins?
We set out to learn if those living during Old Testament times can go to heaven. The question arises because only those forgiven of their sins go to heaven and the New testament says Salvation is only in the name of Christ; therefore, the focus so far has been on God’s plan for forgiveness of sins in each of the three eras, each having its own plan. It is clear that forgiveness was available to everyone who has lived, but did they go to heaven? We have already discussed Enoch going to heaven. Also, Elijah was caught up by a whirlwind and taken to heaven. Returning to the faith chapter of Hebrews we find they were looking for a heavenly country.
16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
The palmist expected to be with God for eternity.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And again, he makes his destination clearer yet when stating his expectation of going to Glory, which is a common euphemism for heaven.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me, And afterward receive me to glory.
This leaves no doubt but that those who took/take their relationship with God seriously go to heaven for eternity as the above verses represent all three eras.
This study uses NASB95 and all Bible quotes are from the NASB95 also.
 Silva, M., & Tenney, M. C. (2009). In The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, D-G (Revised, Full-Color Edition, Vol. 2, p. 335). Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation.
 Speiser, E. A. (2008). Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Vol. 1, p. 112). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
 James 2:21
 Gen 17:1
 Genesis 4:3
 A burnt offering is a sacrifice that is completely burned up.
 Genesis 8:20
 Genesis 22:13
 Genesis 31:54
 It is interesting to note that the Law of Moses was preached until John the Baptist, at which point Jesus is preached. But the New Covenant is established with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 Hebrews 9:11
 Hebrews 9:11-14
 James 2:10
 Galatians 3:24–25
 Romans 3:19–20
 James 2:10
 Galatians 3:24
 Leviticus 4:20, Leviticus 4:26, Leviticus 4:31, Leviticus 4:35, Leviticus 5:10, Leviticus 5:13, Leviticus 5:16, Leviticus 5:18, Leviticus 6:7, Leviticus 19:22, Numbers 15:25, Numbers 15:28
 Numbers 15:30
 Galatians 2:12
 Genesis 48:14, Leviticus 3:2, 3:8, 3:13, 4:4 etc.
 Galatians 3:11
 Acts 23:3
 Matthew 3:7
 Matthew 23:13
 Luke 2:21–38 Simeon and Anna.
 Romans 3:20
 Galatians 2:16
 Romans 2:13
 Romans 3:23
 Hebrews 9:12
 Hebrews 8:13
 2 Kings 2:11
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.